Dem chairman plans criminal referral for Trump backer Prince

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
In this Nov. 30, 2017 file photo, Blackwater founder Erik Prince arrives for a closed meeting with members of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Washington — House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Tuesday his panel is making a criminal referral to the Justice Department because he believes Michigan native and businessman Erik Prince, founder of the security firm Blackwater, lied during congressional testimony. 

Schiff, D-California, is alleging that Prince, an ally of President Donald Trump, lied to his committee in 2017 when he testified to the committee that a meeting with a Russian banker in 2016 in the Seychelles — an archipelago country in the Indian Ocean — was by chance.

That account was contradicted this month by special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which said investigators found the meeting had been set up ahead of time and that Prince even had preparatory materials on the banker ahead of time, Schiff said.

"I do believe that there is very strong evidence that he willingly misled the committee and made false statements to the committee, and later today we will be making a criminal referral to the Justice Department," Schiff said at a Washington Post event on Tuesday. 

"I believe the evidence is so weighty that the Justice Department needs to consider this." 

Prince's attorney, Matthew L. Schwartz, said there's no new evidence to consider. 

“Erik Prince’s House testimony has been public for months, including at all times that Mr. Prince met with the Special Counsel’s Office.  Mr. Prince cooperated completely with the Special Counsel’s investigation, as its report demonstrates," Schwartz said in a statement.

"There is nothing new here for the Department of Justice to consider, nor is there any reason to question the Special Counsel’s decision to credit Mr. Prince and rely on him in drafting its report.”

The meeting in question between Erik Prince and Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, was set up with help from George Nadar, an adviser to the United Arab Emirates's crown prince, according to the Mueller report.

Dmitriev reported directly to President Vladimir Putin, and Nadar told Prince “the Russians were looking to build a link with the incoming Trump administration.”

The Mueller report said Dmitriev was not convinced that Prince was a legitimate intermediary, but Nader told him Price was “very, very well connected and trusted by the New Team” and noted “his sister is now a Minister of Education.”

Erik Prince is the brother of Trump's Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. He was not officially part of the Trump campaign, but he had relationships with Trump officials including strategist Steve Bannon and met with transition officials after the 2016 election. 

Schiff said the committee had asked Prince if he was trying to establish a back channel of communication with the Russians for the Trump transition, which Prince denied. 

"And it's clear from the Mueller report that that was false and misleading," Schiff said.

"In very material ways, I think the evidence strongly suggests that he willingly misled our committee, and the Justice Department needs to consider whether it can make a prosecutable case." 

Schiff did say that if Prince gave the Mueller's investigators information "under the condition it not be used against him, then being able to prove the case (that he lied to Congress) might be problematic."

Prince told Mueller's team that he had briefed Bannon on the meeting with Dmitriev.

Bannon, however, told the special counsel’s office he never talked to Prince about anything involving Dmitriev or meetings with anyone associated with Putin.

Bannon claimed to Mueller’s team that he would have objected to such a meeting if he’d known about it.

Prince and Bannon's “conflicting accounts” could not be “independently verified by reviewing their communications” because messages from that time period no longer existed on Prince or Bannon’s electronic devices, according to the Mueller report. Phone records show they had messaged several times.

Regardless, Prince told investigators Bannon instructed him not to follow up with Dmitriev and said he felt Bannon was “uninterested” in the matter. 

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed